La Habana

We’d never been south before. We’ve been all over Canada, America, Europe, Japan, the Middle East, but never south. Never to the Caribbean. I was a little nervous. It had been a very long time since I’d been somewhere really new. That’s what happens when you travel once or twice a year. Everything starts reminding you of somewhere else. But not only were we going to a Caribbean country for the first time, we weren’t going to a resort. We’re not resort people. So we were going to Havana. And I had used the travel app Hopper for the first time to find us super cheap tickets to Havana via Mexico City (which turns out to be the long way). We’ve flown a lot of airlines in our lives but never Aeromexico. So this trip had a lot of firsts and unknowns.

Oh, and then a global pandemic shows up, in case things weren’t exciting enough.

After seven months of planning, our March Break ended up being only three days due to the swift escalation of travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which I’m beginning to characterize in my head as a Voldemort-like villain who glides by in black robes and sucks all the fun out of the room. But I’ll tell you right up front that those three days of sun, rum and carefree frivolity in Cuba while the rest of the world was collapsing were worth every convertible peso we spent.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not complaining about the measures taken by the Canadian government for their decisions during the outbreak. I’m not upset about the 14 days of quarantine we were in when we returned. Or the stress (and cost) of having to rearrange for earlier tickets home. Or having to don a face mask because I coughed after a piece of my lunch got stuck in my throat and a fellow passenger wouldn’t board the plane in Toronto because she thought I was sick. I do not want to seem that I’m trivializing the situation simply because I didn’t get to fulfill my vacation. Not at all. But our lives will forever be marked by our trip to Havana as being the dividing line of the world as we knew it and the new world of COVID-19.

My memories of our time in Havana have been buried under other stresses for the past six weeks. Thankfully, I wrote a journal there. I normally journal while away but little did I know that three days later, the world would be locked down and the new world of the coronavirus would have taken over, making all memories of fun and adventure seem like a fairy tale from a time long ago.

Havana. Hemingway. Che. Castro. Communism. Old cars. Buena Vista Social Club. Resorts. Beaches. Cigars. Rum. These are the things we equated with Cuba. What we added to the list after our stay was resilience, faith, joy, and laughter. It embodies a quality that I’m having a hard time naming. Cubans have a hard life to be sure but it is these challenges that keep these people generous, kind, friendly and resilient. Their love of life permeates every cell of the island. If I was going to spend the last three days of the world as we knew it anywhere, La Habana is where I would recommend spending it.

We had a few activities planned before we came. Luckily, these activities had been planned in the first few days so that we could learn about the city and then spend the last few days exploring things we wanted to revisit. This is our way; we always do a walking tour on the first day. We always search for the free walking tours (pay what you think they deserve) and that way we learn our way around the city as well as having a local to ask questions to.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me mention a few things you’ll need to know if you are flying into Havana and not going to a resort. The travel agent told us that if we go to a resort, generally there are some things either the resort or the charter flight figures out for you. So here are a couple of things to know.

The tourist card. You MUST have a tourist card before you can enter Cuba. You must carry this tourist card with you wherever you go. If you are a going to a resort, the travel company figures this out for you. If you are going to Havana, via Mexico City, you need to buy it at the airport during the stopover. There was no lineup and it cost $25 US but you pay in pesos. Fill it out at the counter and don’t make any sort of mistake when writing out your information because the Cuban authorities will not accept it. You’ll need to buy a new one. BEFORE you land in Cuba.

Another thing to keep in mind before you leave. Keep all of your valuables in your carry-on luggage. They search everything. You know those stations at airports that wrap your luggage in plastic wrap? Doesn’t matter. We saw luggage on the baggage belt ripped to shreds, as if it had been opened by a pack of wild dogs. Ours came out in one piece and I was surprised that all the extra toiletries and school supplies we brought were actually still in it.

When you arrive, you will need to exchange money at the airport. Cuban currency is not available outside of Cuba. After you’ve gone through customs and you are ready to get your holiday started, go find the kiosk that is located on the outside of the airport. You’ll see a lineup of all the other tourists who were on your flight and some security guards.

Give yourself lots of time to do this. This is a communist country and as I remember from my days living in Russia, generally the work ethic of government employees in communist countries is somewhat lacking. There were three people ahead of us and it took at least half an hour to get our money exchanged. Tourists get CUC (convertible pesos; pronounced like “kooks”) and they are equivalent to the American dollar. If the dollar goes up, so does the CUC. If it falls, so does the CUC.

This is important for your budget. There is another currency for Cubans called the CUP (the Cuban Peso). If you are Cuban, things are much cheaper. Bread is a few cents, for example. But as a tourist, you won’t get these pesos or prices. You’ll pay a much higher price with the CUC’s. But a much higher price in CUC’s isn’t exactly a high price for a North American tourist. Lunch for two usually ended up being something like $30 US and that included a couple of mojitos for me, a couple of beers for my partner-in-crime as well as an after dinner “coffee”, which is really much more like an espresso.

The CUP (“Koop”) is falling out of usage. It is an artifact of the old way, as our guide told us. The only real way of making a living in Cuba is with foreign money (tourists and the increasing number of foreign businesses opening up) so the money that is exchanged most often is the CUC.

So, after you have you tourist card and you’ve made it through customs; and after you collect the disheveled pieces of your checked baggage; and after you’ve waited an eternity in line to get your money…

Welcome to Cuba!

Now to get a taxi. Taxis often come with your Airbnb or accommodation. The host or hostess generally has a driver or knows someone who can pick you up. When we were researching, we saw prices that were basically the same from 25 CUC to 35 CUC. Because our ride was so late at night, our driver told us that it would be 35, not the 30 we were told. So we gave him 40 at the end of it. We were exhausted and not really interested in haggling.

To get a taxi anywhere else in Havana, you can haggle. Always decide on the price before you get in and remember that the classic cars are more. Our tour guide said she always flags down one of the ugliest cars (like a beat-up Lada) and to get from Vedado to Old Havana is about 8 CUC. Taxi or by foot is really the best way to travel around Cuba. Perhaps the busses or trains are fine if you are leaving the city – I don’t know because we never did – but in the city, they are crowded and outrageously hot. It’s your vacation. Just take the taxi and get the money into a real person’s hands.

Ok, now, you have your baggage, your money, and you’ve finally got to your accommodation. Is it a state-run hotel? A foreign hotel? A casa particular? An Airbnb? A casa particular is the traditional way of staying in Cuba and it’s basically an Airbnb – you are staying in someone else’s house. Many of the traditional “casas” as they’re called now advertise on Airbnb.

What neighbourhood are you staying in? Old Havana? Central Havana? Vedado? Mirimar? Every different neighbourhood has its own feel. Old Havana is the old Spanish part with the colonial buildings, courtyards and flocks of tourists. Central Havana is very Cuban, filled with all the places of a community, including the black market, religious houses and a martial arts dojo. It’s very run down looking because the money goes into the tourist districts. Vedado has lots of restaurants and clubs, big houses with lawns and sidewalks. Miramar is an upscale residential area, home to the Russian embassy. But everywhere in Cuba is safe for tourists. Because tourists bring the money. We learned about the “Tourist Law”, where punishment for a crime against a tourist is far harsher than punishment for a crime against a Cuban. Bob even inadvertently tested it out when he walked out into the middle of three lanes of traffic, bringing it all to a halt, while the rest of the tour group stood on the sidewalk apologizing for his absent-mindedness.

We stayed in Old Havana (Habana Vieja) in an Airbnb (the owner travels a lot and rents out the apartment) that was located just south of the Capitolio. It was within easy walking distance of pretty much everything we wanted to see. It was a lovely one-bedroom apartment that had a fan and air conditioning, a good-sized bathroom, a kitchenette, and a small porch if you want to smoke or do laundry.

We were on the fifth floor (fourth floor, if you are British) and there was no elevator so we got our lazy winter butts kicked into shape with a stair workout every day. Many of the buildings look run down. Some are empty and eroded. There is garbage on the street. This is something you’ll need to just accept and ignore. Cuba is not a rich country. So if you’re someone who needs to have everything perfect then go to a resort and not Havana. (Actually, if you want everything to be like home, save yourself the money and stay home. Did I say that out loud? #sorrynotsorry)

Living in Havana has its quirks. One needs to remember that Cuba has some unique issues that come along with its politics and history. Cubans can’t get things from the States unless the people bring it in and sell it on the black market. It’s main trading partner is Venezuela, but the American administration has put immense pressure on Venezuela and so has created another obstacle to the import of goods. To buy a car is extraordinarily expensive seeing as Cuba is an island, and a poor one at that. Because it’s communist, there’s no such thing as real estate. Young people live with their families until their parents pass on and the home becomes theirs. Renting is done but not often and they can’t sell their residences. They can have businesses, but only if they are run out of their residence.

And if it’s difficult and costly to get the basic essentials of living, imagine the cost of repairing the plumbing and electrical aspects of the city. So don’t be surprised if the toilet in the restaurant has no toilet seat, no running water, no soap, the toilet doesn’t flush and you have to put the toilet paper into a garbage can. In fact, don’t put toilet paper into any toilet. There is no greater sin in Cuba than fucking up your host’s plumbing. It’s a big deal. A REALLY big deal.

Not only are the pipes really old and easily overworked but the water trucks only come around every two or three days to refill the tanks. Some places have reserve tanks on the roofs. So consider this when you want to take three showers a day because you aren’t used to the heat.

Speaking of water and the pipes, don’t drink the water. Cubans drink the water but if you don’t live there, probably best to buy bottled water due to the lead content. Last year, one of our guides was telling us about how difficult it was to find bottled water for his tour members. He said, “When you can’t find water, that’s bad. So we don’t really worry about viruses.”

And since I’m being completely honest, be prepared for the occasional cockroach. Like in every warm, tropical environment, there are cockroaches. And yes, they get into the dwellings because there are no screens on the windows. Yes, they can be huge but they are like ants or june bugs or centipedes in Ontario. They just are. Not many, not often, but they’re there. So don’t scream like a banshee if you see one. I’m quite proud that I didn’t.

Ok, now that I’ve got all that out of the way, if you are still interested in visiting Havana, then here’s my rundown on our three days there.

Old Havana (Habana Vieja)

This was the neighbourhood we stayed in. Would we stay there again? Absolutely! But we would like to try another neighbourhood next time simply because we didn’t get to see everything in our short stay.

Havana is bustling. Everyone talks to everyone. It seems like nobody works but that’s just because their lives are extremely social. They are happy to see each other. They laugh, shake hands, hug one another (even the men). They hang out, the share park benches, they’re always smiling.

We walked a block from our apartment and we found ourselves just in front of Parque de la Fraternidad and El Capitolio. The pace is fast, there is lots of traffic, and people shopping, walking, chatting, taxis, buses, bicycle taxis. You don’t need to wait for the lights to cross the street, just wait for an opening and go. They’ll move around you.

The view one block from our Airbnb. (We weren’t the only other tourists in Havana!)

The first activity we had booked was a food tour with Strawberry Tours. It didn’t begin until 2 pm so after a delicious breakfast provided by our lovely hostess Rosita, we headed out with camera in hand to explore. The tour started just outside the famous Hemingway bar El Floridita so we headed that way, taking our time, marvelling at the gorgeous heat and sun and politely declining the easy-going offers from the classic car drivers for the “cheapest price and the best tour”.

El Floridita, the famous Hemingway bar.

Now, if you look at a map, we ended up only an 8-minute walk in a straight line away from where we started. But we wandered and we walked slower than we normally would because we didn’t really know where we were going. And I took a lot of photos. So it took us about 30 minutes to get here. Before heading in, we decided to take a wander down Calle Obispo, which is a street known for its souvenir shops, restaurants with free wifi and music. I bought a postcard and a souvenir bracelet and stamps were available at the post office two doors down.

Let me put in a note about wifi here. In any blog about Cuba, you’ll read about the sketchy wifi so it’s worth a mention. There are two ways to be connected in Cuba – wifi hotspots or a local SIM card. A SIM card came with the Airbnb so we had connectivity. (Make sure your phone is unlocked.) If you don’t get one (I have no idea where you would get one), you can get wifi. But you also need a card for that. And the lineups for those are long. So you’ll need to weigh the option of connectivity with time lost to lineups and finding the hotspots. The hotspots aren’t around every corner but they are fairly easy to spot. Look for crowds of locals on their phones.

We arrived back at El Floridita around 12:30 pm and we had just over an hour until we would meet up with our food tour group. When you’re on holiday in Havana while the rest of the world is being locked down and anyone with a cough is being taken into back rooms and shot, we figured it was time for a drink.

Bring. On. The. Mojitos.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

And the daiquiris.

And the music.

The music is spectacular and it’s everywhere.

El Floridita is famous for being frequented by Hemingway and being the home of the daiquiri. But I don’t know if I would call it Cuban. Now it is mostly frequented by tourists. The staff speaks English, it’s upscale, the bathrooms are complete with attendant. They also serve food and the prices are reasonable. There’s even a bronze statue of Hemingway to get your picture with. But be prepared to wait for a seat. Tour buses from the resorts come here and can make it very, very crowded.

It was a good thing thing we were going on a food tour because I was starting to get hungry. Just before 2 pm, we met our group in the square just outside of El Floridita. Our group consisted of four Americans, a Spanish lady, and a Brit mother and daughter. I’m afraid I can’t remember our guide’s name but his English was excellent. He was studying English, French and German in university so that in the future was to get a job elsewhere translating. Elsewhere meaning another country. But as we learned, leaving Cuba is very difficult for Cubans. In fact, it’s almost impossible. Not because they aren’t allowed but because it’s prohibitively expensive to jump through all the necessary hoops.

Thankfully the first place we went was a restaurant that offered true Cuban food. And it was delicious. It was called Sarra. It was pretty empty when we arrived but tourism had seriously died down since Trump had imposed new restrictions for Americans and everyone else was staying home (or going home) due to COVID-19. Our guide gave us a lot of advice about our meals to help us order and then told us a lot about the history of Cuba while we waited for our meals. I had to order a Cuba Libre (because it’s Cuba and rum is like water there) while Bob ordered the local beer. The Cuba Libre is a concoction that came about at the turn of the century after the Americans ousted the Spanish. They brought their Coca-cola and mixed it with the Cuban rum and voila! The famous Cuba Libre. The beautiful rum and coke, garnished with a stick of cane. Kind of ironic since the Americans stayed in control after the Spanish went home, leaving Cuba not really all that “libre”.

As for the food, before we ordered, the staff were quick to point out that there was no chicken or ribs available. This refrain was repeated in every restaurant we went too. The shortages come in waves. Sometimes it’s bottled water, sometimes it’s chicken, sometimes it’s fuel for the vehicles. You just never know. I ordered fish with grilled vegetables and Bob ordered rice with black bean soup.

We paid our bill which was somewhere in the range of $23 (well, CUC but they are exactly the same) including tip and headed out to our next food stop.

The Cuban sandwich. Which is in fact not even a Cuban food. It was created in Tampa, Florida because of the huge population of Cubans workers there at the time. It’s basically a ham and cheese panini. Because I’m gluten-free, I had to pass. This would be a good place to mention that some people who are gluten-intolerant at home in Canada or America have mentioned in forums and blogs that they haven’t had any issues with Cuban bread. Their bread is made with a flour that goes through very little processing, and it comes out as a coarse flour, with the consistency of an almond flour. If we had had longer in Cuba, I might have risked it and tried some.

Next stop, ice cream. Pretty standard soft-serve ice cream but the thing about many of these little food places aren’t obvious. Businesses must be run out of a person’s residence so these little food stops, don’t look like restaurants from the outside. The challenge of the ice cream is to eat it before it melts all over you.

On this tour, we paid for all of our food so it wasn’t exactly free. But what a great way to find out all the inexpensive ways to eat like a local.

The food tour continued, if you can imagine. Next stop was famous Cuban pizza. While this pizza is made in generally the same way as the pizza we know in North America, it is different. Again, it was tempting to try this pizza, because as our guide said, when Cubans living abroad want pizza, they want Cuban pizza. It’s a fluffy crust, similar to naan. According to the others on the tour, the sauce is slightly sweeter and the cheese is their own Cuban cheese, which is soft and mild, but slightly tangy. This is the cheese you will find on many things. Again, the pizza was not in a restaurant, like the ice cream. But ordered from a counter and eaten on the street. For only 1 or 2 CUC, this could be a delicious snack.

Finally, a break from food! We were off to Cafe O’Reilly’s for a coffee break. But not just any coffee – an O’Reilly’s frappuccino. Espresso, cream and rum, served cold. Heaven. We also decided to come back here a couple of days later to pick up some coffee. Our guide was excited when he saw there was coffee beans. There was a shortage a little while ago.

It was going on 4:00 pm when our guide rounded us up to go to our last stop. I can’t even believe how much food there was on this tour. While I didn’t dare eat most of it, it was well worth it. The last stop was a churros cart. Again, a flour-based, fried “rope” looking food, somewhere between french fry and doughnut. It is squeezed into the hot oil and fries up into a long hose-like shape which is then cut into sections and stuffed into a paper cone. Another inexpensive snack.

I realize now that I’m writing this blog that I didn’t take a lot of photos during this tour. Most likely because it’s hard to take photos and eat at the same time. But also because the tour guide was very interesting and we were always on the move, and at a fairly brisk pace as well. After paying our guide, we gave him and our tour-mates a fond farewell and headed back down Obispo, ducking into tourist markets and shops, making mental notes of what we might want to bring home, and eventually coming back to El Floridita and our short walk home. We finally found a shop that was open and sold bottled water. It was Sunday evening after all and things were winding down.

We had planned to go back to our apartment, freshen up and go out again but it was around 6 pm by this time and we were both feeling the effect of a day of travel, a sleepless night, and the heat, not to mention the growing menace of COVID-19 every time we checked in with home. It was strange to be between these two worlds. The fear hadn’t yet hit Cuba and life was pretty much their normal but back in Canada, it seemed the world was ending. So while I was happy to be in Havana, where we could still enjoy our vacation, there was an un-ease lying under everything if we thought too much about it.

Central Havana (Centro Habana) and the Malecon

Sunrise in Havana

The next day we had two things planned. The first was a 9:30 am tour of Central Havana and the second was a 4:30 pm taxi pick up for an Airbnb experience of a Cuban cooking lesson also in Central Havana.

After another wonderful breakfast spread of the most delicious fruits, cheese and bread ever, we headed out. Our tour group was meeting closer to the Revolution Museum, in the Plaza del Angel, in front of the Iglesa del Santo Angel Custodia. So we took a different route today to see more of Old Havana.

The start of the global lockdown had hit Cuba hard. It was already comparatively quiet since the American Administration had made it harder to travel to Cuba. But now Canadians and Europeans weren’t travelling either. We were speaking with a British couple also waiting and they said their tour the day before had been cancelled due to not enough people. But today there were a good-sized group of people in the Old Havana tour. Our Central Havana tour had only the two of us and a young German couple.

The Central Havana tour might not be as popular as the Old Havana tours because Central Havana is not touristy. It’s very Cuban. But it’s a great eye-opener to what daily life is like for Cubans. This tour was listed as 2.5 hours but be forewarned that this isn’t one of those tours where you walk for five minutes and listen for 10. We walked for almost 3 hours straight. I didn’t even have a lot of opportunities to take photos because we were always moving.

Beatrice, the tour guide, spoke excellent English and knew her history inside and out. She was also very non-partisan considering the politicized events in history and never gave an opinion, one way or the other.

She started the tour at the Revolution Museum and at the point in history of the Revolution. Right beside the Museum is the Memorial Granma, where we saw from the sidewalk Castro’s yacht from which the Revolution was planned with Che. Just across the street was the beautiful art deco Bacardi building. Here we learned how the new government took ownership of all property and redistributed it. If were poor or marginalized and didn’t have property, you were given a place to live. But if you were wealthy, your property was divided. So the massive Bacardi company building in front of us was confiscated by the new revolutionary government and divided into apartments. It is now office buildings.

We also learned that wealthy didn’t necessarily mean rich like the Bacardi family. Even if you were wealthy enough to have your own barbershop, those properties were also confiscated. So while you may have been working with your grandfather and father, now strangers were given jobs in your shop and your house was split into apartments if it was big enough. We were told that a family’s history before the revolution often colours their opinions of it today as to whether is was beneficial or not.

We learned so many things I cannot remember them all. Any mistakes in the retelling of historical facts are mine alone. We were just inundated with information and it was all new to me as I have not read up on Cuban history at all.

We learned about the polytheistic Cuban religion of Santeria, in which the initiates must shave their heads and wear entirely white for the first year. This religion is a blend of Catholic beliefs and African traditions. The homes that perform rituals (that often involve food and dancing) have grass along the tops of the doors.

Because families can’t get new homes or bigger homes, we learned how they create more space. The old Cuban buildings are built in the Spanish style – tall windows, courtyards, high ceilings, narrow streets – all the keep the heat tolerable. So to create more rooms in a building, they can split the first floor into two because the ceilings were so high. This new “second” floor is called the BBQ, because it is the hottest room in the building.

We also had a chance to ask our guide why Bob’s beard was getting so much attention from Cuban men. She said it was because Cuban men are often clean-shaven and the beards that are iconic in Cuban history belong to Fidel, Che and Hemingway. So Bob’s beard was right up there with the Cuban heroes of the older generation. Hipster beards were also becoming more popular with the younger Cubans so this was a reason his beard was drawing attention from the younger men.

One of the most beautiful and most famous buildings we stopped at was the restaurant Paladar La Guarida. The gorgeous restaurant hadn’t yet opened for the day, but we were able to walk up to the to the empty rooftop terrace and take in the view of Havana and the ocean. This building is also the location for the only Cuban film to ever win an Oscar – Strawberry and Chocolate. The next time we go back to Havana, we are definitely coming back here for dinner.

From the rooftop, we could see where we started and how far we had walked already. In the above photo, just right of center, you can see two taller buildings. The one closest to center is the Capitolio and the other is the telecom building that is near our Airbnb.

Central Havana has a lot of very grubby scenes. In places, it reminded me of Sarajevo. The beautiful, colonial architecture is always there but it is truly in terrible shape. Like in Bosnia, I wouldn’t say it detracted from the beauty so much as added to the atmosphere. The decay and erosion is very much a symbol of Cuba’s history and the politics that have shaped it as a country.

Central Havana, looking towards the ocean.

We continued on to 23rd Avenue and the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This hotel is located in the neighbourhood of Vedado. This is a more upscale neighbourhood, known for its hotels, nightclubs, banks and mansions. Considering how luxurious it looked, it’s not an outrageous price, but it’s not cheap either. And the food, apparently, is terrible. From what we’d been hearing from many Cubans was that any state run institution or resort had terrible food. Which is why we always asked the locals where to eat.

Our tour ended here at approximately 12:30 pm. We shared a cab with our guide back to Old Havana and when we asked for a restaurant recommendation, she suggested Restaurante Antojos, close to where we had started our tour.

Our guide recommended this restaurant because of it’s real Cuban food. One dish that we had heard of while we had been doing our research was “ropa vieja” (old clothes). It’s a pulled beef, onions and peppers mixture with a tomato sauce. I found it on the menu with a side of plantains and ordered it. Bob ordered picadillo a la habenero. As an appetizer, they gave us a small bowl of chicharrones (pork cracklings). Everything was delicious! Add in a mojito, three beers for the boy (it was hot, they were cold, and we’d just walked for three hours) and then an espresso at the end and it came to 36 CUC ($36USD)!

It was time for us to head back to the Airbnb for a short rest before heading out again to our Cuban cooking lesson. On our way, we stopped back into El Floridita for some souvenir bottles of rum and then to Partaga’s Cigar Shop (Fabrica de Tabaco Partagas) for some legenedary Cuban cigars.

Souvenir shopping

We had about an hour to relax at the Airbnb before we were out the door again to meet our taxi for our cooking lesson! (Food really was a strong theme for our vacation in Havana.)

When we booked through the Airbnb, they HIGHLY recommended we book one of their drivers as addresses can be difficult to find and traffic can be bad and cars can break down, etc. Once the cooking lesson was underway, the main door was locked so it was really important to be on time. So we booked a taxi at the time we booked but being kinda cheap, we opted for a regular taxi ($15US) and not one of the classic cars ($30US). Now knowing the prices for a taxi, it’s not exactly a great deal considering it was only a 30 minute walk but again, these are things you learn once you’re there.

We waited outside our Airbnb and were surprised to see a blue Chevy Bel Air show up with our names. I guess business was slow and they decided to send a classic! This was sooo exciting! This car was awesome!

We arrived at our cooking lesson right on time. But we certainly didn’t need to worry about being late. We were the only ones! Because of COVID-19, everyone else had cancelled. While the hostess, Odalys, prefered not to shake our hands, her translator, Ivan, wasn’t worried about it.

We went into her kitchen and learned how to cook a lobster stew and three different ways to prepare plantains. I am not the cook in our household but I had a lot of fun preparing this meal. Odalys didn’t speak English but it was an intimate affair with just the four of us and they made us feel that we were out having dinner with friends.

We were cooking lobster “enchilada” but we were told it wasn’t like a Mexican enchilada; it was more of a stew. In the end it was more like lobster tail in a sauce. First we chopped up onions and green peppers. Then, while that was sauteing, we were taught how to cut the lobster tail and devein it. We added it to the sauce, added a tonne of different spices and watched it simmer. While it simmered, we made three different plantain dishes – tostones, maduros and plantain chips (like our potato chips). Maduros are my favourite; they are sweet, soft, fried plantains that I had eaten for the first time at Antojos earlier in the day. I was happy to learn how to make them and to have more. We were offered guava juice and we had brought wine to share. We had a side salad and white rice as well. Thankfully, we were sent the recipe after we got home because there is no way I was going to remember everything we learned.

I’m not sure if I can convey to you just how full we were after all of this beautiful food. If you’ve been to Cuba before and didn’t think much of the food, then clearly you were eating at the wrong places. The Cuban food we experienced was flavourful and tender, not spicy per se but savoury and mouth-watering.

Because we were their only guests, we were introduced to Odalys’s husband, working in his woodshop on the top floor. We admired his incredible wood work throughout the entire house – stairs, lattice work, signage – as well as the giant coconut tree that was growing out of their roof.

After we returned to Canada, we received a message from Odalys hoping we were well and letting us know that we were her last guests.

We said a fond farewell to our hosts and headed to the Malecon just as the sun was setting. The Malecon is a broad seawall that stretches along the coast of Havana for 8 km, from Vedado to Old Havana. It is a place where Cubans and tourists alike hang out, walk, fish, play music sit on the wall and chat, share some rum, and just enjoy the evening.

Sunset on the Malecon

The Malecon was only a few blocks from our cooking lesson. We walked east for approximately 1 km, towards Old Havana and then south, down Calle Galiano back to our Airbnb for the evening.

What a day! 22 000 steps, baby! We were certainly making the most out of our short three-day vacation.

More Exploring in Old Havana

Our third and final day in Havana was designated as a “free” day. A day to explore new places, to revisit things we found interesting, to pick up any souvenirs that we still needed, to RELAX. As exciting and enchanting as the past two days had been, it was anything but relaxing! Today was the day to stop for coffee or a mojito when the mood struck, to wander through souvenir shops, eat when we were hungry and to just soak up the beautiful weather and lively atmosphere and pretend the world wasn’t falling apart.

Today was going to be the day that I could stop and take as many photos as my heart desired. We decided to walk to the Malecon again. This time, we took the massive, tree-lined promenade Paseo de Marti. Walking under its shaded canopy was beautiful. Marble Benches were spaced on both sides and students and hotel workers on a break were relaxing, enjoying a snack or a smoke, or children were playing games in the middle. We followed it all the way to the sea wall, where the canal to Havana Port begins and continued to walk along it until we turned into Plaza de la Catedral.

Paseo de Marti, the division between Old Havana and Central Havana.

Here we decided since it was St. Patrick’s Day and it was almost noon, we would stop for a drink. The crowds were getting smaller and smaller every day. We stopped at a small cafe called Fonda Al Pirata. This little cafe was friendly, served big mojitos, ice cream and advertised gluten-free, vegetarian and a rainbow sign that everyone was welcome. Their tables also had signs on them that said they could be shared with other guests. However, there was no need for us to share our table with anyone as the tourists were all going home. Our server said that business was now very slow. About half the tables were being served and it was only noon and if they usually have to share seating I can imagine that the tourist crowds are usually quite significant.

From here we continued to walk. We wandered into souvenir shops and through Plaza de Armas, we stopped in at O’Reilly’s again for some coffee. Then wandered some more.

Then, as we were walking down Obispo, I noticed “Castro”. I nudged Bob and he immediately set eyes on him as well. And as if beard brothers can sense each other, their eyes met their arms went out and they greeted each other like long lost friends.

This might have been the highlight of Bob’s trip.

It was time for lunch so we started looking for a restaurant. The lively, Cuban music lured us into this restaurant – Vinales (which is the area of Cuba known for cigars). If we had had the chance to look online, we would not have stopped here. It is expensive (relatively speaking) and considered a tourist trap. While we each got a large plate of food that was perfectly edible, it did give us an understanding of why many tourists thing Cuban food is not very good. Compared to what we had been eating for the past two days, it was bland, slightly over-cooked and I’m pretty sure I can make better maduros. That being said, the live music was highly enjoyable, as it is everywhere in Havana.

Considering the size and location of this restaurant, I would imagine that even with mediocre food, this place would normally be buzzing with activity in the B.C. years (Before COVID-19). Now, however, there were only two other tables with patrons.

We continued on our wandering way, back to the area where our Airbnb was located. We were told by our hostess that there was a grocery store just around the corner. Every morning as we left for the day, it would still be closed. But today, Bob wanted to explore. He loves going into little food shops wherever we travel to see what kind of food the locals eat. He is adventurous with his food tastes and always finds strange-to-us foods and flavours that he wants to try.

Now, to put things in perspective, at home, people were panic-shopping at this time. If you recall, North Americans were fighting over toilet paper and hoarding canned goods and thinking the world was going to morph into some sort of Walking Dead scenario in the coming days. So when we saw the lineup to get in and then the empty shelves, it put our privilege in perspective. This is not the result of panic-buying. This is the result of years of embargos. This is not “prepare-for-the-end-of-the-world”, this is life in general. And there are a lot of places in the world that live with massive shortages of essential goods and a lack of choice EVERY. DAY. Panic is a first world privilege.

Because we had eaten a late lunch, we weren’t hungry for dinner so we went back to the Airbnb for a short rest and to freshen up before heading out to a restaurant that our translator from our cooking class recommended. He said this place had great traditional Cuban music and it happened to be only a few minutes walk from where we were staying.

Sia Kara Cafe is located just behind the Capitolio. Its walls are packed with art that is interesting in its subversive nature and its shelves filled with vintage knick knacks. There was a variety of seating and because we were fairly early in the evening, there weren’t many people. We stayed for a couple of hours, reflecting on our crazy whirlwind Cuban adventure, enjoyed our last few tastes of authentic Cuban rum, enjoyed some appetizers and then called it a night. We still had to pack and we had a ridiculously early taxi pickup for our 7 am flight back to Canada.

We said goodbye to Havana and began the strangest flights home we’ll hopefully ever have to endure.

I don’t know what post COVID-19 travel will be like. I feel like it’s safe to assume that the days of affordable air travel are over. I don’t know when we’ll get to travel again unless we can drive there. I don’t know where we’ll go. And what life will be like in those places anymore. I’m happy that I’ve already travelled so much. I’m thankful I made the choice to travel instead of buying a house or doing other “grown up” things. I’m glad we took the risk and went anyway, even though some thought we were crazy or selfish or worse. I am eternally grateful that Bob and I had this one last adventure before the world changed forever.

Cuba, we are not done with you. Someday, somehow, we will be back!

One thought on “La Habana

  1. So happy to finally read about your Cuban experiences and how you enjoyed it so much. You will both return to enjoy it even more as it will probably not have changed. The pictures were fantastic.

    Like

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